Coronavirus: US investing $3.2 billion to develop pills to treat COVID-19

WASHINGTON — Officials on Thursday announced that the Biden Administration plans to invest more than $3.2 billion in developing antiviral medicines to treat COVID-19 and other viruses “with pandemic potential.”

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The program, dubbed the Antiviral Program for Pandemics, is aimed at developing effective antiviral medicines that can be taken by mouth early in the course of a COVID-19 infection. Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to the president and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Dr. David Kessler, chief science officer for the Biden Administration’s COVID-19 Response Team, began brainstorming the idea late last year, according to The Washington Post.

“New antivirals that prevent serious COVID-19 illness and death, especially oral drugs that could be taken at home early in the course of disease, would be powerful tools for battling the pandemic and saving lives,” Fauci said Thursday in a news release.

The pills for COVID-19, which would be used to minimize symptoms after infection, are in development and could begin arriving by year’s end, pending the completion of clinical trials. The funding will speed those clinical trials and provide additional support private sector research, development and manufacturing.

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The program will provide funds to speed up clinical trials of some promising antiviral drug candidates, The New York Times reported.

“The focus was to reinvigorate the nation’s antiviral program over the next three to five years. What’s become more clear, as the pandemic has come into focus, is we have to do it this fall,” Kessler said, according to the Post. “We need this set of tools to close out this pandemic. … The hard thing is to recognize with all the success, there’s still several hundred deaths a day.”

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Researchers tried using existing antiviral medications on people hospitalized with severe COVID-19 infections at the start of the pandemic, though many trials showed no benefit to using the drugs, according to the Times. The newspaper reported that scientists have since learned that “the best time to try to block to coronavirus is in the first few days of the disease, when the virus is replicating rapidly and the immune system has not yet mounted a defense.”

Last week, officials with the Department of Health and Human Services announced a $1.2 billion deal to purchase 1.7 million doses of molnupiravir from Merck if the drug gets approval or authorization for emergency use from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The antiviral drug is being studied in COVID-19 patients who are not being hospitalized, but who have “at least one risk factor associated with poor disease outcomes,” according to Merck officials. The company is developing the drug in collaboration with Ridgeback Biotherapeutics.

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Thursday’s announcement came as officials continue to encourage Americans to get vaccinated against COVID-19. As of Wednesday, the last date for which data was available, 175 million people had gotten at least one dose of any of the COVID-19 vaccines available nationwide, amounting to 52.7% of the population, according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 44% of the population, or 146.4 million people, have so far been fully vaccinated.

As of Thursday, nearly 33.5 million COVID-19 cases had been reported across the U.S., resulting in more than 600,000 deaths, according to a tally from Johns Hopkins University. Globally, 177.1 million COVID-19 cases have been reported, resulting in 3.8 million deaths.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.